More than a quarter-century ago, Professor Laurence Tribe declared: “The first amendment’s sweeping guarantees have been most compromised in the realm of the most modern medium: electronic broadcasting.” (American Constitutional Law, p. 1004: 1988).
Perhaps mindful of that contention, in his petition for certiorari Joshua Rosenkranz (who heads Orrick’s Supreme Court and appellate litigation practice) urges the Court to reconsider its unanimous ruling in Red Lion Broadcasting Co. v. FCC (1969), which upheld the Fairness Doctrine over a First Amendment challenge. (Note: Archibald Cox and Erwin Griswold successfully represented the Respondents in the case. The ACLU filed an amicus brief submitted by Melvin L. Wulf and Eleanor Holmes Norton in which they supported the First Amendment claims.)
The case is Minority Television Project, Inc. v. FCC and Lincoln Broadcasting Co. Here is how Mr. Rosenkranz (a former Justice Brennan law clerk) begins his brief on behalf of a public television broadcaster challenging the federal law in question:
The world has changed dramatically since 1969. In the Vietnam era, top television ratings went to Doris Day, not Duck Dynasty. Back then, the color television was a novelty and high-powered computers, using tape reels and punch cards, filled up an entire room. Today, people carry the same computing power, and color video screens, in their pockets and manipulate inputs with their fingertips. Back then, conventional over-the-air broadcasting was the only way to reach the American family in their living room with audiovisual content on news or public affairs. And technology at the time permitted only a limited number of stations to harness the airwaves effectively. Now, innumerable speakers can reach American families in their living rooms, and just about everywhere else, with almost unlimited audio- visual content on public affairs, news, and everything else imaginable.
That dramatic change is central here. In 1969, in Red Lion Broadcasting Co. v. FCC, this Court invoked the “scarcity” of conventional over-the-air broadcasting opportunities to hold that the First Amendment permits the government to regulate broadcasters more intrusively than all other speakers. But Red Lion’s premise is now profoundly wrong. Conventional over-the-air broad- casters no longer control access to Americans’ eyes and ears. And in any event, there are exponentially more broadcasters now than ever before.
In other words, as times change so, too, should the law. But whatever the fate of Red Lion, he adds, given the Court’s ruling in Citizens United v. FEC (2010), the Justices should apply strict scrutiny review to judge the constitutionality of restrictions on paid political messages that are broadcast. Finally, assuming intermediate scrutiny were to apply, his clients should still prevail since “the only evidence before Congress supposedly linking the ban to the interest that the government seeks to advance consists of guess- work lacking any concrete factual support.” There you have it, from the bold to the modest.
However convincing such arguments may be in the abstract, they failed to convince the Ninth Circuit sitting en banc. The vote was 8-3 with Judge M. Margaret McKeown writing for the majority. The Court sustained the law under intermediate scrutiny analysis and likewise denied the Petitioner’s over-and-underinclusive challenges, along with a facial vagueness challenge and an as applied challenge.
Judge Consuelo Callahan joined the majority’s opinion “only insofar as it upholds 47 U.S.C. § 339(b)’s prohibition against paid advertisements by for-profit entities.” She dissented, however, from the majority’s “acceptance of § 339(b)’s prohibition of advertisements on issues of public importance or interest and for political candidates.”
Enter Chief Judge Alex Kozinski in dissent. “The United States stands alone in our commitment to freedom of speech,” he starts out. “No other nation,” he adds, “not even freedom-loving countries like Canada, England, Australia, New Zealand and Israel—has protections of free speech and free press like those enshrined in the First Amendment. These aren’t dead words on paper written two centuries ago; they live. In many ways, the First Amendment is America. We would be a very different nation but for the constant buffeting of our public and private institutions by a maelstrom of words and ideas, ‘uninhibited, robust, and wide-open.'”
From that high rhetorical platform, Judge Kozinski advanced some 11 weighty and related arguments:
- “The majority embraces every justification advanced by the government without the least hesitation or skepticism, and without giving proper weight to the true harms caused by the speech restrictions in question.”
- The rationale of Red Lion is no longer relevant.”I’m certainly not the first one to note that that rationale—whatever its merits at the time—no longer carries any force.”
- “We must . . . be doubly skeptical: first, because the restriction is content-based and, second, because we have traditionally treated some of the prohibited speech with the greatest solicitude.”
- “[C]ommercialization, as that term is commonly understood, deals with commerce; it says nothing at all about advertising for political candidates or on issues of public interest.”
- “No one explains why political and issue ads are dangerous, if advertising for non-commercial entities (including product ads) isn’t. If legislators feared influence, why didn’t they worry about stations falling under the sway of non-commercial entities?”
- “Even if we look at the evidence developed after the legislation was passed—some of it decades later—there isn’t much to support the ban on political and issue ads.”
- “Issue ads can be quite important from a First Amendment perspective. Aside from generating revenue, which public television and radio stations can use to produce more and better programming, issue ads can help educate the public about some of the most significant questions of the day . . .”
- “[W]hat’s remarkable about the testimony presented to Congress is that they are nothing but concerns. The legislative record contains no documentation or evidence; there are no studies, no surveys, no academic analyses—nothing even as meaty as the
rather anemic expert reports introduced by the government in our case. Sure, a lot of people worried that commercial advertising would wreck public broadcasting, but people worry about a lot of things that never come to pass. . . . It . . . seems wholly irrational to make undocumented claims about the likely behavior of public broadcast stations, were they allowed to air advertisements, without first considering the ways in which they differ from commercial entities.”
- “[S]tations that receive paid advertising revenue can acquire or produce programs that they could not otherwise afford. Thus, the loss of advertising revenue can’t be dismissed as simply a loss of money; it is, in fact, a loss of speech.”
- “[T]he evidence presented by the government in support of these speech restrictions simply doesn’t pass muster under any kind of serious scrutiny—the kind of scrutiny we are required to apply when dealing with restrictions on speech. Even if intermediate scrutiny applies—and I doubt that it does . . . — there is simply not enough there to satisfy a skeptical mind that the
reasons advanced are rational, let alone substantial.”
- “Because ‘[t]he text of the First Amendment makes no distinctions among print, broadcast, and cable media,’ Denver Area Educ. Telecomms. Consortium, Inc. v. FCC, 518 U.S. 727, 812 (1996) (Thomas, J., concurring in the judgment in part), Red Lion and Pacifica represent a jarring departure from our traditional First Amendment jurisprudence.”
Similar arguments along with others are offered in an amicus brief by Robert Corn-Revere filed on behalf of the Cato Institute. His central argument is that the Court “must abandon its technology-specific approach to the First Amendment, if only because to retain it would be tantamount to perpetuating a dangerous legal fiction. Furthermore, Corn-Revere maintains that “[c]ases upholding such regulations, like Red Lion, do not effect a minor adjustment in the applicable constitutional test. Instead, they represent “a complete conceptual reordering” of First Amendment principles and a “virtual celebration of public regulation” of the press. The difference in perspective is so radical it appears to come from “another world.” Lee C. Bollinger, Images of a Free Press 71-72 (1991). In this Bizarro World version of the First Amendment, up is down, black is white, and banning political speech is acceptable because of the “collective right” of viewers and listeners “to have the medium function consistently with the ends and purposes of the First Amendment.” Red Lion, 395 U.S. at 390. According to this philosophy, the government must destroy First Amendment rights in order to preserve First Amendment values.”
Will the Rosenkranz-Kozinski-Corn-Revere arguments ultimately prevail, or will Red Lion survive yet another 45 years of challenges? Stay tuned. Meanwhile, additional information concerning the history of the case is set out below.
The Law Challenged
47 U.S.C. § 399b, which prohibits public radio and television stations from transmitting paid advertisements for for-profit entities, issues of public importance or interest, and political candidates.